Monday, January 11, 2010

Exhibition: Pioneers to the Past

Chicago Tribune (William Mullen)

James Henry Breasted, founder of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, was short, bespectacled and cerebral -- hardly fitting the picture of Indiana Jones, the fictional archaeologist many think was based partly on him.

Yet some of the cinematic "Indy" swashbuckle could have been inspired by a perilous, 11-month journey Breasted took through the Middle East in 1919 and 1920, just after founding the institute.

On Jan. 12, the institute celebrates its 90th anniversary with a temporary exhibit -- "Pioneers to the Past" -- that retraces the adventure, including tense haggling with shady antiquities dealers, encounters with armed Arab horsemen and even a little fisticuffs.

It is described in Breasted's own words in vivid accounts he sent home to his family, photos taken by him and four companions, and hundreds of ancient artifacts he brought back. . . .

He had written several well-regarded histories of the ancient world, including a 1916 best-seller, but he had never been able to raise enough money to fulfill his dream of creating a great research institute at Chicago.

In May 1919, he was elated when John D. Rockefeller Jr., son of the world's richest man, pledged $50,000 in seed money to start the institute and finance a Middle East trip.

By November, Breasted was in Egypt, intent on buying ancient artifacts from the world's earliest civilizations for the new institute and touring ancient sites in Mesopotamia where he planned future Chicago-led archaeological digs.

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